My Journey to the PhD

Every so often, I am asked about my experience earning a PhD. Typically, the questioning comes from someone who wants to embark on earning the degree himself or herself. I feel an obligation to be honest, and to say that, given my experience earning that degree, I do not recommend following that path. That advice is usually met with surprise and disappointment. The truth is that earning a PhD was one of the most – if not the most – negative and unsatisfying endeavors of my life.

In one important way, I grew from the experience. I am a stronger person now, and have much more confidence in my own intellectual and professional abilities. But I learned those things in spite of my journey to the PhD, not because of it.

Earning the degree sounds so romantic and important, doesn’t it? Along the years it took me to earn the degree, I would try to talk to people about my concerns, my fears, and eventually, my nearly soul-crushing experiences. I was always met with, “But then people will call you Doctor!” and the even more frustrating, “But who wouldn’t want to hire you with a PhD.”

Here are two truths about having a PhD:

  1. Most people do not call you “Doctor,” and the people who insist upon being called Doctor by others are generally self-important jerks.
  2. Many, many people will not hire you because you have a PhD. The degree is overkill for a lot of jobs, and there are so few that do require it that getting one of those jobs in your field is virtually impossible. I know an awful lot of people with PhDs who are underemployed or who left academia altogether because they needed to earn a living and couldn’t do so in their chosen field.

Sure, I’m now in the top 2% of Americans in terms of education*, but so what? I also lost ten years of earning potential and career-building time while I put life on hold to earn that degree.

If the path to earning the degree had been satisfying in some way, that would have helped, I think, but the endeavor was fraught with frustration, red tape, insecurity of others, and lack of program structure and leadership. For a long time, I thought that my experience was unique to me and to my program.

In hindsight, though, I have met with plenty of others who have similar stories at different institutions. There is a whole community of us who love English language and literature, who went into the advanced study of our favorite subject out of love of story and humanity, and who are now limping towards creating a professional life that tries to reclaim that love. I feel it is time to write about some of those experiences, to share the truth of that experience, and in doing so, to move forward from it.

I do not write these stories to cast a negative light on my university, which I will not name in this space. This is because I do not believe that the challenges I experienced are unique to my institution. I also do not write these stories to influence anyone to making one decision or another. Pursuing an advanced degree might be the right path for you. My purpose here is to share my own experience in an effort to shed some light on it. Do with this information what you will.

*http://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/326995-census-more-americans-have-college-degrees-than-ever-before

My Favorite Client

I have a secret: I have an all-time favorite client. I know, I know, clients are supposed to be like children, right? It’s bad form to have a favorite? Yet, one of them stands out from the rest and always has: The Marine Toys for Tots Foundation (TFT).

IMG_1811

Years ago, I worked for a direct mail agency. We specialized in direct mail fundraising campaigns for nonprofit organizations. While at this agency, I was the writer of record for the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation. I wrote fundraising appeals for them for years, and that remains some of the work about which I am the most proud.

TFT was easily my favorite client, for many reasons, in no particular order:

  • They were easy to work with. Let me tell you, the Marines run a tight ship (no pun intended). They are on time, always. They do what they say they will do. If there is a deadline, they will meet it. If they say they will send you source material, they send it (as opposed to saying “oh, just have the copywriter come up with something.” Ahem.).
  • This is the charity that sells itself. The bottom line is that it’s just not hard to rally people around the cause of children, toys, and Christmas. This is a cause that transcends religion, race, politics, gender, and anything else that tends to divide people. I have yet to meet the person who can’t be bothered to provide a simple, new, unwrapped toy for a child at Christmas. We all know the impact that doing so can make on a young life. We all know how easy it is to share our own bounty.
  • The low program expense ratio. To this day, close to 98% of donations received go toward the mission of providing a little Christmas to as many needy children as possible (Source). When you donate to the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, you know exactly what your money is going to buy. Many donors find that comforting.

IMG_1815

Even though I have moved on from that agency, and have not written for Toys for Tots in some time, I still think about them every year when I trim my own Christmas tree, because I still have, and treasure, the Christmas ornaments given as favors at the annual Toys for Tots Foundation kick-off luncheon. Hanging those ornaments on my tree, I remember each family’s story I was privileged to read about and then to write about in an effort to support a very good cause. I am grateful for the opportunity to play a little part in helping make those families’ holidays special.

P.S. You can read some of my work for TFT on my Samples page.

My Story

Just over ten years ago, I made a decision.

I had been working at my job, writing direct mail fundraising letters for nonprofit organizations, for five years, and I was bored. Not of the work itself – I loved the writing. I loved telling stories, finding the meaning behind the ask, and making connections between organization and donor. I especially loved putting pen to paper, which I did, literally. I would frequently gather up my research materials, a fresh notepad and my favorite pen, and head to the conference room or the kitchen or even a bench outside to scratch away at some ideas that I carefully shaped into stories that become fundraising appeals.

Eventually, though, I wondered what else there was out there for me to do. I had expanded my role quite a bit from copywriter and editor, to freelance coordinator, to ad hoc public relations representative for my agency. I wrote articles for publication, edited fundraising letters that come in from freelancers, and carefully selected new freelancers to test on different appeals. But, after several years of similar mail plans, of membership packages, and of checking calendar proofs, I was ready for something more.

I took that hunger and curiosity and applied to graduate school. I only applied to two programs: an MFA and a PhD. The MFA program turned me down. The PhD program welcomed me in. Suddenly, I knew what I would be doing with my time for the next five to ten years.

My agency graciously allowed me to shift from full time to part time hours while I gave graduate school a try. That lasted for a time, but the call to explore new options was strong. I eventually left the agency that had been my professional home for five years and jumped in feet first to a new challenge: teaching.

Let me tell you something: teaching is far more difficult a profession than you think it is. My first teaching job was with a community college where I was handed the textbooks, a sample syllabus, and my schedule, and told “Welcome! We can’t pay you much, but we’re glad you’re here.”

That was the extent of my training. I walked into class the first day absolutely terrified. Somehow, I found my way. I even managed to have fun. Hopefully, I taught my students something. In time, I learned how to be a better teacher, but those first few classes, wow. Talk about a learning experience. That job was easily the toughest – yet most rewarding – job I have ever had in my life. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to do it.

Because I had some flexibility in my schedule, I began volunteering at the local zoo. Not too long after that, an opportunity opened up to teach at a different zoo, marrying my teaching experience with my volunteer experience into one very awesome yet spectacularly low-paying experience. I stayed at that zoo for more than seven years, advancing over time into positions with greater levels of responsibility.

The call to teach writing beckoned, though, and, quite frankly, so did the necessity of earning a better living. I began teaching for an online university while working at the zoo full time. I did this for two years. Once I knew it was time to move on from the zoo, I began applying for other positions, and was offered one in Miami that was very tempting. I knew, though, that the move was not the right one, for a variety of reasons. I also knew that, moving forward, I was only going to apply for local jobs that did not involve a move, with one exception: if the university where I taught had an opening for a full time position, I would apply.

Within three months of making that decision, a full time position did become available. I applied in September, gave notice to the zoo in October, started my new position remotely in November, and moved to a new state in December. It has now been two years, and I still sometimes look around, shake my head, and ask myself: how did I get here?

Over time, I will expand on this story a bit. I will share more about the different pieces of what led me from a pathway to a traditional academic career to a very different life at a zoo and then back to academia, but still in a somewhat non-traditional fashion.

Throughout the years, though, and throughout the experiences, the constants for me have been: education, both formal and informal; love of learning; love of nature and how it ties into our lives; travel experiences and how they foster a great love of global community; nonprofit missions, and their connection to direct mail; community and customer service; and putting pen to paper to tell a story. These are the themes I will explore in this blog moving forward. I hope you will join me.

What is Precise Words Copywriting?

Precise Words Copywriting is a professional copywriting and editing service specializing in direct mail fundraising for nonprofit organizations, as well as content writing, blogging, and editorial services for a variety of commercial clients.

Statement from Marie:

When I began my professional career, I had every intention of going into book publishing, however, by stroke of luck, a temporary position at a direct mail fundraising agency turned into a permanent one, and I spent the next five years writing direct mail fundraising letters, as well as writing press releases and industry publications, and managing the agency’s freelance writing staff. I was privileged to make an impact on the nonprofit community by using my skills. 

I left the industry to return to graduate school, where I earned a doctorate in English literature, and gained much experience teaching English literature and composition. I also spent a number of years serving in leadership roles at a large cultural institution that focuses on wildlife conservation. As an instructor, and now as an academic dean, I have been privileged to make a difference in the lives of many through working to teach writing skills to others. My academic speciality is in teaching beginning composition, because strong writing skills are necessary to succeed in any field. Every day I am inspired by my students, and am proud to play even a small part in their journey to receive their education. 

As a direct mail copywriter, I am able to continue serving the nonprofit community by writing for causes that are meaningful and important to me. I am also skilled at blogging, with experience writing about travel and automotive services, and my most recent experience includes writing product descriptions/catalogue copy for a major retailer. Please reach out to me today to find out how I can help your clients reach their best donors and customers and continue their good work.